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Dark Knights Falling

Now Can We Talk about Masculinity and Men?


Even though it was–once again–a man who went on a shooting spree, the national conversation following the mass murders on July 20 has so far failed to focus on the root causes of this latest lethal outburst: men’s mental health and how men are socialized.

Until we acknowledge those issues, we can only expect more tragic bloodlettings.

The massacre at the Century movie theater complex during a showing of “The Dark Knight Rises” in Aurora, Colo., ended with 12 dead and 58 wounded. The shooter, James E. Holmes, was arrested and remains in police custody. The multiple murders are the latest example of an expression of masculinity that society continues to ignore at its own peril.

All these years after Columbine High School shooters Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris killed 13 in Littleton, Colo. (1999); Charles C. Roberts murdered five girls in a one-room school house in Lancaster County, Pa. (2006); Cho Seung-Hui shot and killed 32 at Virginia Tech University (2007); and Steven Kazmierczak killed five and wounded 16 at Northern Illinois University (2008); isn’t it glaringly apparent what the killers have in common? No, it’s not that all the assaults occurred at schools and colleges. It’s their gender; they’re all men. (As is Anders Breivik, the Norwegian mass-murderer who killed 76 people a year ago.)

Men’s violence of the magnitude Holmes perpetrated needs more than news shows inviting pop psychologists on for analysis. We need a national teach-in on masculinity, attended by doctors, social workers, teachers, clergy, the judiciary, legislators and parents. And the facilitators need to come from the ranks of those who have been examining male behavior and working with men and boys for the past 30 years.

Gory Political Narrative

A society that socializes boys and men to disdain any emotion (except anger) and that glorifies violence–from video games to kicking Afghan butt–reaps what it sows. Even though the drumbeat of war and superpower bravado may not be front and center in a presidential campaign where neither major party candidate served in the military, our country’s love of dad’s blood and guts has always trumped mom’s apple pie.

Our gory American political narrative stretches from the boots on the ground army at Valley Forge to the antiseptic drone strikes in Pakistan. In an America equipped with all-volunteer armed forces that’s been at war perpetually since 9/11, maintaining a tough guise is paramount. How many of the male mass murderers were soldier wannabes?

The profile of 24-year-old Holmes has many similarities with the other male mass murderers. Neighbors and friends from Aurora, and Southern California where he grew up, told The New York Times he was “as anonymous as a glass of water” and described him as a solitary figure, always alone. “Alone as he bought beer and liquor at neighborhood shops, as he ate burritos at La California restaurant or got his car fixed at the Grease Monkey auto shop. Alone as he rode his bicycle through the streets,” the article reported.

In the wake of the killings, the calls for gun control–which the National Rifle Association for years has so successfully fended off–will get louder now; and a new uproar is good. Unfortunately, we probably shouldn’t expect wary election-year politicians to put their careers in the crosshairs by introducing any bold legislation. But that doesn’t mean citizens and courageous members of Congress shouldn’t try to press the issue, particularly now. For starters, let’s push for screening Michael Moore’s “Bowling for Columbine” at the Century Cineplex in Aurora, followed by a community conversation on gun violence in America.

A Singular Characteristic

Holmes shows us a society that still doesn’t acknowledge maleness as the singular characteristic tying together virtually every similar act of violence over the past 15 years. We knew it was masculinity two years before Columbine, when Luke Woodham, 16, killed two students and wounded five others in Pearl, Miss., in 1997, after first bludgeoning to death his sleeping mother. Then there were Mitchell Johnson and Andrew Golden, two middle school boys, 13 and 11, who killed five people, four female students and a teacher, at a school near Jonesboro, Ark., in 1998.

Heard enough? How much more evidence do we need? To paraphrase James Carville’s tagline when Bill Clinton first ran for president: “It’s the masculinity, people.”

The inconvenient truth is not just that all the assailants have been male but that, until we make that fact predominant, all the observations the forensic psychologists and the news programs trot out are pointless.

The conspiracy of silence about men and depression, too many men’s reticence to seek counseling, the health care community’s underreporting of the relationship between men’s mental health and a host of related problems–from alcoholism to heart disease–all have to be challenged. This is a campaign the Surgeon General needs to mount with all the resources that changed social attitudes about smoking. The current social compact about masculinity assumes that a minority of men like Holmes is an unavoidable part of male behavior. This is both untrue and unacceptable; there is too much collateral damage.

Of course society doesn’t explicitly say it sanctions horrific mass killings–except through our ongoing love affair with war, which, outrageously, is often described as “necessary” by some of the same people who are quick to say acts like Holmes are “senseless.” We have for too long compartmentalized these particular aberrant acts as a kind of “boys will be boys gone wild,” not as an endorsement but as an explanation of the inevitable.

Lives of Quiet Desperation

We can no longer ignore the fact that too many men live lives of quiet desperation–it isn’t just the loner who doesn’t talk with anyone about life’s struggle. Most of us, at one time or another, have gone underground with our feelings as part of a misguided strategy to better negotiate our lives. Hopefully, we got help; or someone(s) who cared about us intervened. For too many men like Holmes, too often there is no one.

It’s time to draw a new social agreement about masculinity that pledges we will intervene with moody, shut-down, angry males and not just those found on our campuses or in offices and factories. Sadly, they are also in our elementary school playgrounds and walking the corridors of our middle schools. Schools start in a little more than a month. Just enough time for educators to begin planning how to identify troubled boys.

As you read these words, behind closed doors in tiny country towns, cavernous suburban ranch houses and dark apartments in big cities, lonely, angry, disconnected men are living lives of (sometimes noisy) desperation. How many more must lethally lash out before we acknowledge that men’s mental health is as serious a male health issue as prostate cancer? Mental health treatment for troubled men must rise to the top of the national agenda if there’s to be any hope of preventing future tragedies.

Holmes is not an aberration, not just a lone, crazed gunman. He is the latest canary in a deadly masculinity mine whose coldly calculated killing spree warns us of the risks we face if we don’t focus our attention on redefining masculinity. Now.

Wednesday, July 25th, 2012 Editor's Blog, Front Page

10 Comments to Dark Knights Falling

Martin Dufresne
July 25, 2012

Halfway down this essay, what could have been a clear indictment of manhood as the exercise of privilege progressively turns into a familiar reversal, making killers into figures deemed worthy of pity and support. Holmes becomes someone described as “always alone.” Then comes the usual laundry list: depression, alcoholism, reticence to seek counseling, heart disease… The murders committed by men become mere “collateral damage” as male interest is once again repositioned as what counts and the author asks us to accept on blind faith that men abuse only inasmuch as they are misunderstood, frustrated of attention they are entitled to, underprivileged.
I beg to disagree.

Adam Leader-Smith
July 25, 2012

Martin, I respectfully disagree with your interpretation of what Rob has written. The article does not seek to exonerate the men who commit these acts of violence, but rather argues that these acts of violence emerge from a status quo in which men’s mental and emotional health often give rise to the men who commit these acts. What the article seeks is to address these roots of violence.

I think there are angles that can be explored beyond masculinity here, but the article voices strongly what I believe, which is that it’s wrong to read the men who do these actions as “outside of society,” disconnected from the context in which they emerged–and that massacres like the one in Aurora are inevitabilities.

Martin Dufresne
July 25, 2012

Well, actually, as I pointed out, it is Rob himself who described Holmes as “always alone”, suggesting mental illness rather than someone fitting in with a male culture of power over, a point which Michael Moore emphasizes in his own Op-Ed: http://www.alternet.org/story/156465/michael_moore:_aurora_happened_in_america?page=1
I certainly agree that Holmes must be seen in context, but that context is one of male entitlement, not of underprivilege, as the men’s movement would have us see any male abuser.
Like all men, Holmes has received messages telling him he was entitled to get his way or else… Indeed, this is what TMZ.com suggested when they announced that he had been rejected by three women on a “dating” site a few days before he went on his rampage.
Using him as a poster child for even more resources for men has a somewhat blackmail-ish quality, which comes out more clearly in the title used for the “Women E-News” version of the essay:
“Aurora Rampage Shows Dangers of Ignoring Men’s Health”
With friends like these…

Martin Dufresne

Adam Leader-Smith
July 25, 2012

What you’re saying is a bit clearer to me now. I do agree with your point about male entitlement and how it contributes to the male rage/violence. Writing off all male violence as actions borne of mental illness would be very irresponsible.

However, I think you’re being overly strident in your critique. Nowhere does the article refer to Holmes as “underprivileged” or imply that is the case. You’re interpreting a call to address men’s mental illness as if doing so only helps men or goes directly into male pockets, and as if the resources that go toward that goal are resources denied to others.

You could argue that the article doesn’t account for where the money would come for what it would propose, but to argue that it’s trying to create an argument to “blackmail” others into donating to men’s causes is quite a leap.

martin dufresne
July 25, 2012

Adam writes: “You’re interpreting a call to address men’s mental illness as if doing so only helps men or goes directly into male pockets, and as if the resources that go toward that goal are resources denied to others.”
No, I am not. I think my point is clear. There is no indication so far that Holmes is mentally ill or otherwise not to be held accountable for his cruelty. I am reading his petulant show of extreme force as male privilege in a patriarchal culture and think we need it to address it as such, not as any proof that men need more attention and resources, whoever provides them. Indeed, on top of being “irresponsible” as you say, I don’t even think it is “helping men” to broadcast such a reversal, quite the contrary of a correct interpretation of their choices and of any accountability somewhere further down the line.

Randy Flood
July 25, 2012

I think this article uproots the tangled masculine underbelly that lurks below these heinous crimes. It is very difficult to talk about “help” and services for men in the context of a mass killing spree that has killed innocent people and the safety and heart of a community. Our outrage often obscures any vision of redemption or restoration. We just want to throw these entitled violent men away, out of society, so they can’t hurt us again. Well, unless we get to the core of the issue as Rob so eloquently posits, we’ll continue to have estranged, pained, and angry males pummeling us with their twisted and terrorizing acts. And these externalizing behaviors are a mere representation of the mayhem of their psyches. Until we have a more sweeping and comprehensive approach to intervening in the shadow of masculinity, these tragedies will continue.

Lorna Kazokaas
July 26, 2012

As much as I agree with much of what has been outlined here in terms of outward (public) acts of male violence against society, let us not forget the acts of depressed, isolated, and mentally troubled women whom, over the past 20 years, have been in the news for trying to conceal the killing of their children. I wonder how the males’ somewhat detached “emotional randomness” in killing people they don’t know equates with a mother killing her own children. Maybe a bigger lens to view these tragedies through would be to consider why these people feel so desperate that they would even consider taking the lives of innocent people.

Lois Barber
July 31, 2012

The shootings in Aurora, Colorado took place about 15 miles from where I am staying. They rattled my mind, heart, and bones.
Rob Okun’s piece brought to my mind the practice of metta or lovingkindness mediation where one ‘sends’ lovingkindness to oneself and others. “May you be safe. May you be healthy. May you be happy. May you have ease of well-being.” Metta teachers suggest that you begin this practice by sending this meditation to yourself, then widen the circle to include friends, relatives and people you know and love, then expand outward to include total strangers, and even farther to include people you view as dangerous or as your enemy.
But, ‘Why,’ you may ask, ‘send lovingkindness to real or potential dangerous murderers?’ During a recent discussion of metta, I realized that of course you want everyone, especially people you see as violent and dangerous, to be healthy, safe, happy, and have ease of well being. If each of the men who Rob highlights in his article truly experienced happiness, safety, health, and well being, they wouldn’t have committed these acts of violence. As a result, we’d all be safer, healthier, happier, and have a greater sense of well-being. Men need our lovingkindness meditations.
But as a social change activist I know it’s not enough to meditate. In addition, one needs to educate, organize, and mobilize oneself and others. I support Rob’s call to take focused effective action to create a new social agreement about masculinity. Thanks Rob for leading the way in how to do this.

[...] no one seems will­ing to talk about. Rob Okun, edi­tor and pub­lisher of Voice Male mag­a­zine has also writ­ten about it (here as well), and the very fact that Kalish and Kim­mel wrote their paper sug­gests that [...]

MarkS
December 19, 2012

Thank you for this interesting article and commentary. While social atmosphere influences individual perception, that alone does not explain irrational acts. And while the majority of mass attacks have been completed by males, not all of them were male. Laurie Dann is a case to reference. I believe the majority of those willing to act out like this are predisposed to mental disorder. Social environments may influence or accelerate the behavior, but it is not a sole factor or majority variable. This would imply rehabilitation is possible, which sadly is not the case for many. Mitchell Johnson for example was arrested after his release from prison for firearm and drug possession.

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